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Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham Talk Sex, the City and 'Girls'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire March 20, 2012 at 11:19AM

An interview with the producer and the creator/star of HBO's new comedy about young women in New York City.
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Lena Dunham on the set of 'Girls'
Jojo Whilden/HBO Lena Dunham on the set of 'Girls'

The meteoric ascent of Lena Dunham from precocious indie filmmaker to, well, still-precocious TV series creator and star can be tracked over iterations of SXSW. In 2009, her debut "Creative Nonfiction" played in the Emerging Visions category. In 2010, her sophomore film "Tiny Furniture" won the narrative competition, was picked up by IFC Films and eventually released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. And this year her terrific new show "Girls," about four young women trying to carve out lives in New York, was all over the festival, with HBO touting its April premiere via posters, bicycle shares and free coffee, and with three episodes screening at the 1300-seat Paramount Theatre.

[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, where the first three episodes of "Girls" world premiered. The show premieres on HBO this Sunday, April 15.]

It's a heady amount of success for someone who's only 25, but Dunham seems to be handling it with aplomb. It certainly doesn't hurt to have the support of Judd Apatow, who serves as the series' executive producer and who's worked in both the worlds of television and film. I caught up with the pair in Austin to talk about the benefits of collaboration, the challenge of making sex scenes funny and a certain other HBO show about female friends in the city.

Judd Apatow
Jordan Strauss Judd Apatow
Lena, you've gone from indie film to television, and Judd, you started in TV and then moved into film. What's that transition like?

Judd Apatow: I remember after our shows were canceled, there was an article in the LA Weekly that Robert Lloyd wrote -- he said that "Freaks and Geeks" felt like an indie film, and that's why it doesn't work on television, because there's no place for that indie sensibility on network television. And I thought, that's exactly right!

But we didn't think about that when we were making it. It was a show that was lead by Paul Feig's vision. And because we always thought we were going to get canceled, we never changed anything to please anybody -- if we got notes we usually didn't take them, because we thought "we're going to be gone in six months anyway, so why bother ruining the show when it won't even buy us another season?" This experience feels a lot like that, except in the most positive way -- HBO really believes in the show and in Lena's singular voice.

Lena Dunham: Part of the reason they trust me is that they know Judd is around making sure nothing goes too out of bounds. [laughs] For me, it was much more about a transition of scale than it was about a transition of medium. I'd worked with a crew of -- on a good day -- six people, and to go from six to 65 crew members, that felt intimidating. But because of who I was working with, the actual process didn't change that much.

I was still allowed to cast friends, to have a weird, rangy scene that didn't necessarily feed the narrative but gave a sense of tone, to do all these things that felt like an important part of my process. I had infinitely more support, which I'd always equated with less control, but in this situation that didn't turn out to be the case.

'Girls'
Jojo Whilden/HBO 'Girls'
How was the experience of working with other writers?

LD: When we did our first table read, people laughed, but I said to Judd "Is that how a table read's supposed to go?" He said "Yeah, it's good... People could have laughed a little bit more." We all went into a room and talked for three days.

I'd thought my script was done, but what we came out with was something that was infinitely funnier and more alive. My favorite moments in the pilot come from those three days. I finally understood the benefits of doing something in a collaborative way -- that really taught me how to use the writers room.

JA: Also, a staff is a good resource for crazy life experiences. At some point, you run out of dumb things you've done.

LD: Especially when you're making a TV show -- you don't have much time to do dumb things.

JA: So it's eight people with an enormous amount of stories. When we hired the staff, we talked a lot about hiring people who've lived and who have a lot of tales to tell, because we felt that's what the show was about. 

LD: I literally talked to a writer I thought was great, but then afterwards was like, "I don't think she's slutty enough..." [laughs] "She's so smart and such a good writer, she feels too on track!"

This article is related to: Television, Interviews, Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham, HBO , Girls







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